Six things every company should do at year’s end

At the end of each calendar year there are a few timely considerations for businesses, for instance, financial moves that affect a company’s tax position. The end of the year, however, is more of a psychologically significant time as people reflect on the past year and look forward to the future. It’s a natural time for planning, review, budgeting and forecasting.

Smart Business spoke with Michael Stevenson, managing partner at Clarus Partners, about what businesses can do to prepare for the coming year.

What should companies review and plan for as they approach a new year?  

Among the things companies should do going into a new calendar year is to create a budget for the coming year. Project the costs of any potential big-ticket purchases, such as equipment and hiring new people, and determine at what point of the year it’s anticipated those will happen.

Make budgets measurable so as to not create something that can never be achieved. Do, however, make it a stretch to achieve. And make the budget time bound. If planning to increase annual revenue by 10 percent, map out how much increase the company will need to achieve each quarter to reach that goal. Don’t set goals too high or it will make the budget irrelevant.

Prepare for emergencies by creating an emergency fund that’s at least twice normal operating expenses. This could take the form of working capital or a cash reserve account.

It’s also a good time to manage debt. Many companies confuse what they can borrow with what they should borrow. If the debt on a company’s books makes it highly leveraged, plans should be made to eliminate some of that debt. Some of a company’s investments, then, should go toward paying down its debt.

Prepare for the unexpected. Catastrophes happen, fraud happens, so a plan should be in place to deal with those events. A good first step is to cross train associates to protect business operations against an employee who decides to leave and create a safeguard against a fraudulent employee so someone is able to look over his or her shoulder. Also create a disaster recovery plan to backup critical company data on a daily basis so that if something happens a backup can restore it within 24 hours.

Business owners should make a concerted effort to delegate more to employees in the new year. It’s easy for business owners to fool themselves into thinking they can do everything. Learning to delegate makes for better growth and it makes their work/life balance healthier.

Find a way to give back to the community. Find a cause that matters to the organization and donate, volunteer or become a board member. It goes a long way toward making the community a better place to live and do business.

When should planning begin and how should those plans rollout?

The last quarter of the year is the best time to budget for the coming year. It’s when most of the relevant historical financial information and potential sales commitments are in for the first half of the next year.

Expense-side budgeting is often fairly easy since items such as payroll and operating expenses tend to remain stable from year to year. The hardest task is projecting revenue for the next 12 months. Often the first half of the year’s revenue is clear, but the back half could be a guess. Set a revenue target to grow to and write those numbers down.

Who should be involved in year-end planning?

When planning for the upcoming year, involve the organization’s trusted management team. When the planning meeting is over, everyone has to be on the same page. Goals must be attainable and measurable. Then set out to accomplish them one step at a time so the bigger, annual goal can be achieved.

Be bold when planning. Companies that do the same things they did the previous year aren’t putting themselves in a growth position. Business owners should regularly delegate the tasks they’ve learned, clearing the way for them to take on new responsibilities that position the company for growth. That can be hard for some people to do, but delegating key responsibilities to the management team makes for a stronger organization.

Insights Accounting is brought to you by Clarus Partners

Some of the best-kept secrets for an effective leadership transition

If you’re like many business owners, you probably think there is plenty of time to plan your transition. After all, you may have years — or even decades — until retirement, and there’s no need to be thinking now about something so far ahead in the future.

Or you may be one of the many baby boomers nearing an earlier retirement and wondering whether you have done what is necessary to transition the business. Regardless of your age and the stage of your businesses, failing to have a transition plan in place could be a fatal mistake for the future of your family or your business.

Smart Business spoke with Michael Pappas, CPA, a Director at Barnes Wendling CPAs, about some of the most important things to keep in mind when it comes to succession planning.

The best place to start
If you build a great business, transitioning it is easy. The problem is many entrepreneurs get caught up thinking about transitioning their business with one dimension in mind. One-dimensional thinking can lead you down the wrong path because you are too fixated on one direction. If that direction fails, you are forced to start over again.

Regardless of where you are in your succession plan, you can always benefit from an assessment of your business’s current condition.

What are the best attributes to create the most value for your business?
  A business that replicates profitability year in and year out, even without you.
  An executive leadership group that is team-oriented, competent and focused with a ‘we all win, or we all lose’ attitude.
  Continuous education and training programs at all levels.
■  Hiring the best people at all times.
  A highly-diversified customer base.
  Employee evaluation systems to help each team member improve to achieve their highest and best use.
  Hiring the best people with the skill sets necessary to achieve team-oriented objectives.
  Well-documented systems with training programs to ensure customer satisfaction is always at the highest level.
  An incentive system to recognize and reward those accomplishing the above.

Always work on your business
As an entrepreneur, your challenge is to not get caught up in the day-to-day activities of your business. Your time is best spent focusing on high-level strategies to achieve growth and improve profitability. A great leader trains and mentors staff and then delegates responsibilities.

Your people will make mistakes, which allows them to learn and grow. Avoiding mistakes is only possible if you are involved in every decision. But you provide the greatest value when you have time to work on advancing your business.

In order to fulfill all the needs of building a great business, you need to surround yourself with great people. Every great leader makes decisions after gathering input from as many sources as possible. Once your team is assembled, what is the next step? Define your plan, commit it to writing, delegate authority and execute it. Then, follow up with scheduled accountability and make adjustments as needed.

Develop a succession plan

Now that you are on the path to building a great business, here is what you need to do to build a strong succession plan:
  Evaluate your options: Assess the ability and desire of family members.
  Appraise key management personnel.
  Consider the merits of an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP).
  Study potential third-party external buyers. Look at strategic and financial buyers, as well as private equity groups.

Always be prepared for the unexpected
With every option, there are a variety of strategies to accomplish each. Some take longer than others. Be open minded and always have a plan A and a plan B. As an owner, your desire may be to pass on the business to a family member. But unless you’ve confirmed the family member is on board, they may have other plans that do not include the business.

When you consider such uncertainties, building a great business is even more crucial to providing you with the greatest flexibility to succeed and to maximize its value.

Insights Accounting is brought to you by Barnes Wendling CPAs

What to consider when looking at the benefits of a cost segregation study

A cost segregation study is the process of identifying fixed assets and their costs and classifying these assets and costs to maximize federal income tax depreciation deductions.

It involves reclassifying some of a building’s costs, presumed to be subject to a 39-year cost recovery life, into shorter personal property or land improvements, now with a five- or seven-year rate of depreciation for personal property and/or a 15-year rate for land improvement projects.

With engineer-based cost segregation, a building owner may depreciate a new or existing facility in the fastest allowable time, accelerating the owner’s tax depreciation and tax deduction and deferring income taxes.

Smart Business spoke with Lou Petro, senior manager at Cendrowski Corporate Advisors LLC, regarding the benefits of performing a cost segregation study.

What facilities are available for a cost segregation study?
Cost segregation studies are economically viable for almost any commercial facility. The facility may be newly acquired or constructed, under construction, inherited or a property upon which a full cost segregation study has never been performed.

Applicable facilities include apartment buildings; breweries; car dealerships; banks; distilleries; grocery stores; health care facilities; hotels and motels; laboratories and research facilities; and manufacturing facilities. The list also includes office buildings, resorts, restaurants, retail malls, warehouses and wineries. In essence, any depreciable real property used in a taxpayer’s business would be suitable for a study.

How much can a cost segregation study save?
Typically, the present value of a taxpayer’s cash flows is increased by about 20 cents for each dollar reclassified out of a 39-year property. In a typical cost segregation study, between 15 and 45 percent of a building’s costs can be reclassified to shorter life assets.

The percentage depends on the type of facility and on such things as special use or process equipment, interior finishing and land improvements. For newly constructed property, the bonus depreciation allowance allows the deduction of up to 50 percent of qualifying shorter life asset costs, which accelerates the tax savings extensively.

Who would perform a cost segregation study?
The Internal Revenue Service requires that cost segregation studies be engineering-based.

The IRS Cost Segregation Audit Techniques Guide states, “Preparation of cost segregation studies requires knowledge of both the construction process and the tax law involving property classifications for depreciation purposes.”

In general, a study by construction engineers is more reliable than one conducted by someone with no engineering or construction background. Experience in cost estimating and allocation, as well as knowledge of the applicable tax law, are other important criteria.

How would a taxpayer choose a firm to perform a cost segregation study?
A taxpayer needing a cost segregation study should use a firm that has the qualified personnel and expertise in place to perform an engineering-based study.

Generally, such a firm would have experience with this kind of work and could assist you through the process and answer any questions that might come up along the way.

A combination of registered professional engineers and tax-qualified CPAs would be appropriate for the work. The firm, in general, would provide a potential client with a fixed-fee proposal for the cost segregation work.

Insights Accounting brought to you by Cendrowski Corproate Advisors LLC

What fiduciaries should look for during annual benefit plan reviews

Employee benefit plan sponsors and fiduciaries must realize how important plan compliance and their fiduciary responsibilities are to their companies, employees and plan participants, says Sean Pierce, CPA, CCIFP, director of auditing services at Clarus Partners. The Department of Labor (DOL) and IRS are very serious about plan operations and that fiduciaries are running the plan in accordance with the plan document and complying with the law. He says companies that don’t have a formal compliance review should schedule one as soon as possible.

Smart Business spoke with Pierce about benefit plan reviews and the responsibilities of plan fiduciaries.

What is a company looking for when it reconciles participants and contributions?

Companies should have internal controls over their various employee benefit plans, specifically defined contribution 401(k), 403(b) and defined benefit pension plans. One of those controls should always include reconciling participant contributions to the plan on a per pay period basis. Without this simple control in place, companies could be forced to contribute additional funds in the form of lost earnings to participants for any possible late remittance. To the DOL, timely remittance means as soon as administratively possible.

What should a compliance check on a employee benefits plan fiduciary include?

Compliance checks should evaluate plans from a fiduciary responsibility standpoint. This should include hiring a qualified third-party administrator or investment adviser to manage some or all of the plan’s day-to-day operations.

Annual reviews or compliance checks of the plan would include reviewing the plan to determine if the goals of the plan are being met and fiduciaries are meeting their responsibilities. Also, the compliance check should include a review of the record keeping system to determine if the flow of monies to and from the plan are sufficient.

What should a company check into at the end of the year?

As part of their annual compliance checks, plan fiduciaries should be evaluating if they are acting in the interest of plan participants, following the plan document, and reviewing investment results and investment strategies. Fiduciaries should check to see that the plan is providing participants with the appropriate investment advice and education. Additionally, fiduciaries’ review should check to ensure that transactions occurring in the plan are not prohibited transactions, while also making sure plan expenses are reasonable.

If the benefit plan requires an audit, the fiduciary should determine if the plan auditor has enough experience to perform a quality audit. The DOL started reviewing auditors’ work papers and noted that in some cases a deficient audit was performed. In certain circumstances, if the DOL finds a plan had a deficient audit, the DOL can reject the 5500 filing and fine the plan sponsor up to $1,100 a day until the plan comes in to compliance.

What are some important dates to keep in mind when performing a year-end review?

Plan sponsors should know when the plan’s 5500 filing is due, which is seven months after the end of the plan year. The 5500 is eligible for an automatic two-and-a-half month extension.

Sponsors should make sure they make any plan amendments before the start of the plan year and give participants the appropriate notice of any plan changes. They should review their plan document for entry dates into the plan, and ensure that new participants are being given the opportunity to participate and the appropriate investment advice and education around the plan are provided. When the year-end review of the employee benefits plan is through, fiduciaries should have an understanding of any area of concerns or improvement, and an action plan to tackle any deficiencies.

All of the fiduciaries of the plan should be involved in a year-end benefits check. However, it’s best if fiduciaries meet more than once a year to review the operations of the plan. If fiduciaries are taking an active role during the year, the year-end review should not take much time.

Insights Accounting is brought to you by Clarus Partners

How community involvement benefits company culture

Today companies are finding that philanthropy and community involvement can help improve internal culture and employee job satisfaction. That can go a long way to producing tangible benefits to an organization, such as increased retention and generating connections that could lead to new business.

“Aside from the tangible benefits of giving back to communities, it can be a lot of fun to get out of the office with employees as a team and contribute by participating in fundraisers and food drives,” says Michael Stevenson, CPA, CFE, CFF, ABV, managing partner at Clarus Partners. “It’s an opportunity for employees to get to know one another better, to work as a team. That teamwork and camaraderie carries over to the work environment and improves the business.”

He says it’s important that employees like each other and can have fun together. “That’s good for creating efficiencies in the workplace, and goes a long way toward people enjoying going to work.”

Smart Business spoke with Stevenson about the impact community involvement can have on a company, both internally and externally.

What are the tangible benefits of charitable outreach?

Charitable outreach can mean free publicity for the company through promotion on its website, and there may be some recognition for the company at the event or local media coverage. It also allows the business to create a stronger connection to the community.

While free publicity is good, employees, especially those who are younger, appreciate that a company would engage in those events. It improves happiness and helps in employee retention.

How might giving back to the community have a positive financial impact on the company doing the giving?

One of the major benefits is employee retention. It’s widely accepted that replacing an employee can cost an employer as much as two times the former employee’s salary. It’s critical that an organization retains younger employees who are willing to learn and grow to handle greater responsibilities.

Similarly, charitable work helps employees build new skillsets and connections. While participating in a food drive, employees may get to learn or showcase skills that are different than the skills they use at office.

Gaining new connections in the community is always positive. As employees grow within a company, they may be asked to help develop new business. This can be a step toward that.

The time a company donates for a charitable endeavor isn’t a tax deduction. The IRS can’t define the value of a person’s time, so volunteer hours given toward a charitable organization aren’t deductible. It has to be more tangible — donating food or money, buying a table at a charitable fund drive, sponsoring an event or playing in a charitable golf outing can be deductible.

Tax deductions shouldn’t really be a factor in charitable activities. It can be offset of an expense, but taxes shouldn’t drive what’s right for the business.

How does a company measure the impact of its corporate philanthropy?

It’s not easy to quantify, but it can be felt. Those who get involved in charitable activities often have a better attitude, and improved job satisfaction and productivity.

To receive those positive outcomes, employees should have a say in what activities the company gets involved with. Form a charitable giving committee that comprises employees — not partners or executives because there should be no pressure from top to make certain decisions. The committee can meet a few times per year to set the company’s charitable agenda. Whatever the group decides, allocate dollars in the company budget to allow them to pursue that activity — whether that means matching donations or providing time off work. It’s important that whatever is decided, the owners support the group.

Giving back to the communities in which a company operates should be inherent in its culture. It sends the message to the community and the employees that the company doesn’t just exist to make a profit — the company has a stake in helping the community thrive. That can improve relations with the community, help attract and retain talent, teach new skills and make new connections. Let the employees pick something they are passionate about and support them as they go help out.

Insights Accounting is brought to you by Clarus Partners

How using forensic investigative tools can detect fraud during an acquisition

Many companies undertake an acquisition using only a financial due diligence process. However, for a greater chance of detecting potential misrepresentations, companies need to incorporate forensic investigative tools into their standard due diligence process.

Forensic techniques will help point out and isolate areas of potential fraud as well as any irregular or suspicious activity. Forensic analysis during the due diligence process can uncover accounting improprieties that could overinflate the value of a target company.

Performing these two services together will give increased assurance that projected performance is achievable. Adding in forensic analysis is a crucial step toward assuring your acquisition is successful. It can allow you to see past ‘closed doors’ into areas you might not think to look.

Smart Business spoke with Michael Maloziec, Accountant at Cendrowski Corporate Advisors, LLC about forensic techniques and their benefits during the acquisition process.

How large of a role can fraud play?
It’s huge. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners Report to the Nations found a typical organization loses some 5 percent of its revenue to fraud each year. Even though that does not sound like a significant number, when applied to the Gross World Product, this figure translates to a potential projected annual fraud loss of more than $3.5 trillion.

What are some caveats to keep in mind?
Companies will always showcase their business in the best possible light. Managers will ‘polish the apple’ so to speak. Bear in mind the sales numbers might be misstated, which can overinflate the value of the company. Also, companies will not disclose everything, so it is important to proceed forensically during your due diligence process.

Always be aware of potential manipulation in reserves and estimates. Reserves are one of the most common areas for fraud to occur because it is under management’s discretion. These caveats will help you recognize and point out areas that raise red flags.

How can you protect yourself from fraud?
One method is to look behind the numbers. You should always carry a certain sense of forensic skepticism and never make assumptions during any part of the due diligence process. Be sure to ask questions that will dig into transaction details and note any instances that provoke uncertainty.

Don’t forget about applying simple common sense. Ask yourself, ‘Do the numbers flow with the current business plan that is set in place? Do management’s representations make sense?’ You can also utilize a number of analytical tools to spot any anomalies.

What analytical tests should be performed?
A great way to start would be to forensically analyze the financial statements over the past few years. During analytical testing, it is important to review current and past events in order to isolate anomalies from known events. You can utilize a variety of different ratio analyses, which can be an excellent tool in detecting red flags.

Ratio analysis measures the relationship between various financial statement amounts and tracks how past numbers are trending with current results. To gain some perspective, compare company financial information to similar industries that hold the same standards, such as size, geography or sector.

There are also numerous computer software programs that will assist in narrowing the scope and provide the capability of recognizing potential fraud.

How should a company approach this issue?
Start by assessing the business processes. Processes provide guidance to employees and assure accurate reporting. Acquirers need to review and understand the capacity and capability of their target organization. As part of the due diligence process, the acquirer should examine the current processes and identify any weakness or holes that could allow for erroneous or unauthorized transactions.

A great method to gain insight would be to perform an internal risk assessment, which can help identify industry risks that might not be so obvious. This allows managers to zero in on areas that might be susceptible to potential fraud before they become a problem.

Insights Accounting is brought to you by Cendrowski Corporate Advisors LLC

Tax credits for R&D help those looking for it

The R&D tax credit is a federal credit aimed at encouraging business investments in technological innovation. In 2015, with the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act, the R&D tax credit was made permanent, giving qualifying companies a chance to plan to take advantage of it.

“The credit offers companies the benefit of a percentage of expenditures for qualified R&D activities, which hinges on how much businesses invest in R&D,” says Monika Diehl, tax director at Clarus Partners. “Unfortunately, not all that qualify take it.”

Smart Business spoke with Diehl about the R&D tax credit and the qualifying activities it’s designed to encourage.

Are many companies that qualify for the R&D tax credit taking advantage of it?

Many companies are not taking advantage of the R&D tax credit. The low use is often attributed to lack of awareness that credit is out there and not understanding what activities qualify. There also had been a barrier to use because calculating the credit for many years was cumbersome. That has improved in recent years.

Previously, the process to calculate the credit required a comparison of current year qualifying activity against activity dating back to the creation of the credit. The option to use a simplified method was introduced several years ago. The simplified method compares the current year investment in qualifying activities to the same investment for the average of the previous three-year period, making it a lot simpler to get the information necessary to take the credit.

An R&D study is needed to document that a company’s specific activities qualify, so there is some time involved there.

What are some common misconceptions around the R&D tax credit that stop companies that qualify from pursuing it?

One of the main misconceptions about the R&D tax credit is that businesses mistakenly think it’s only applicable to activities performed in scientific environments, such as in a lab. That’s not the case. The credit applies to businesses in all types of industries and to a variety of activities that are technological in nature. There does need to be some component of uncertainly and a trial and error process to solve for some unknown, but this can be done in a typical business environment.

Some examples of qualifying activities are developing new products or product formulas or developing processes. These activities are conducted in many businesses, not just those considered to be highly scientific.

For companies that want to take advantage of the R&D tax credit, what should they know?

Recent changes in the law are making it easier for business activities to qualify for the credit and for smaller businesses to realize benefits.

The cost of research required to develop software primarily for the company’s internal use has historically, and under recently revised rules, been subject to meeting very specific guidelines in order to qualify. However, new guidance narrows the definition of Internal-Use Software allowing more projects to be considered under a more relaxed standard.

Recent changes are also helping smaller businesses benefit from the R&D credit. Eligible small businesses can now apply the credit against regular tax and the alternative minimum tax. Previously the benefit was available against the regular tax liability only. There is also an opportunity for qualified small businesses to apply the credit against payroll tax on employee wages. These changes provide smaller businesses with a cash benefit more quickly.

As with a lot of credits, businesses often don’t know they exist or what activities qualify. There are a number of helpful credits not only at the federal level, but also from the state down that encourage businesses to undertake certain activities and make certain investments. When investments are made that grow and improve a business and create jobs, governments frequently offer incentives to assist with costs through grants, tax credits, special financing arrangements, or reimbursement of costs to train new employees. Keep an eye out, because there is likely help available for those willing to look for it.

Insights Accounting is brought to you by Clarus Partners

Keeping a close eye on operations will help avoid surprises

One of the primary functions of management is to understand what is actually going on in an organization, as opposed to what is supposed to be happening.

However, for monitoring to be truly effective, there must first be good communication, a culture that promotes ethical behavior and a solid understanding of the particular organization’s risk factors.

Organizational monitoring is not just about protecting a company from fraud. Monitoring systems can help ensure quality, that customer needs are being met and that the company is doing everything else that is necessary to achieve its goals.

Smart Business spoke with James P. Martin, Managing Director at Cendrowski Corporate Advisors, LLC to discuss how management can better understand what is truly going on within the business.

What are the steps to an effective organizational monitoring plan?

First, the company must clearly define its goals. What is it trying to accomplish and how will it accomplish those goals? Second, what risks does it face? What can get in the way of the company accomplishing those goals? Third, what type of early-warning system does the company need? How will it know if and when a risk has occurred or if someone has not performed as expected?

What impacts are electronic monitoring systems having?

Electronic monitoring systems have been around awhile, but are drawing increased attention now with more severe penalties and potential outcomes for violations under Sarbanes-Oxley. Electronic monitoring systems are similar to a car’s dashboard. When trigger points, predefined events or hurdles are detected, ‘warning lights’ appear on the manager’s desktop.

While electronic monitoring is useful, it cannot — and should not — replace human involvement. The most important thing managers can do is be involved with operations on a day-to-day basis by walking around and talking with employees, holding regular meetings, receiving regular reports and phone calls, etc.

How are trigger points identified?
An organizational assessment of risk will help management identify areas that have more robust monitoring needs. Examples might include finance, everything related to potential issues arising with cash, or vendor management, such as notification every time a vendor’s address changes.

Triggers also can monitor quality metrics, supply chain issues, personnel issues, etc. The system should be proactive so that management can address issues before they get out of control, preventing a crisis management situation.

It’s important to note that a monitoring system is more holistic than the definition of trigger points. The single biggest factor is people — what they will do in a given situation. The overall culture needs good communication systems and a clear understanding of management expectations.

Monitoring techniques need to continuously adapt to consider potential changes in behavior. There are a lot of examples of companies that had defined monitoring procedures, but creative people were able to identify and exploit areas that were not considered in those procedures.

How do private equity firms monitor the activities of the companies they invest in?
Private equity firms have to monitor the operations of the portfolio companies, not to the extent of detail that internal management does, but they do need to define risk. These companies have expectations, and if they identify certain events on the horizon, they can be prepared to take certain actions. Like the companies they monitor, private equity firms also must define their own particular trigger points.

Any tips for improving a system?
Make sure you’re monitoring the right areas. There may be areas you’ve historically monitored that have now changed, which is where the internal audit function comes in. The board’s audit committee must understand what is critical for the upcoming year.

In examining the ‘audit universe’ — the model that defines every auditable event within the organization — areas of risk are identified, and then prioritized for audit. It’s management’s responsibility to determine how many resources to invest in each given area of risk.

Insights Accounting is brought to you by Cendrowski Corporate Advisors LLC

How to choose an auditor for the short- and long-term

The goal of an audit is to provide reliable financial information that can be used to shape the direction and major decisions of a company. A good auditor can ensure that, but he or she must be able to effectively communicate for the client-auditor relationship to work.

“During an audit, it’s essential that the auditor and the client communicate freely, exchanging ideas on how to address issues that arise,” says J.W. Wilson, CPA, director of accounting and auditing services at Clarus Partners. “The auditor should explain problems and solutions in a way that’s very easy to understand by those who aren’t auditors. It’s also important that the company feels connected to its audit partner, and feels as if it could build a solid working relationship for the future.”

Smart Business spoke with Wilson about what to consider when choosing an auditor, the process of selecting an auditor and how to gauge the auditor’s performance.

What are the criteria companies should use when choosing an auditor?

The criteria are different depending on the company’s size, the industry in which it operates and where the business is heading — if it’s going public, looking to sell, etc.

Industry expertise is important. Auditors who work with similar-sized companies in specific industries can provide better advice because they understand what’s going on from a legal and regulatory perspective.

Look for an auditor with a good reputation, which can be determined by asking your colleagues, bankers and other advisers.

Audits take a significant amount of time from the employees involved. Good auditors are respectful of the employees’ time. They only ask for what they need and don’t waste time.

The fee is an important consideration. It should at least seem reasonable given the scope of work. Ask how they bill for work outside the scope of the project, and whether they’ll provide a multiyear bid, which can be important for budgeting and forecasting purposes. It’s good to know what an audit will cost for the next three years. It’s difficult to switch auditors since each has their own process.

How can companies research potential auditors? What resources should they use?

Talk to your business partners such as accountants, bankers and attorneys as well as CFOs of other companies that you have a relationship with. Find out who they use or have talked to in the past.

You can always search for firms on the web. For private companies, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants website has peer-reviewed reports for firms — every three years accounting firms are required to have a peer review to determine if their quality control measures conform to applicable accounting standards.

Public companies should be looking for accounting firms working through the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, which oversees the audits of public companies.

After selecting an auditor and having an audit performed, how can companies determine whether or not they received a quality audit?

Companies should set up criteria to determine if the proper services were provided using criteria similar to what was used to select an auditor. It’s a good idea to get feedback from the people who deal with the auditor on a daily basis. Ask those involved: How was the communication? Was the work done in a timely manner? Did the auditor do all the work that was expected?

That feedback will determine whether you want to continue the relationship. If, for example, a company made a three-year commitment to an auditor and decides it wants to end that relationship, there’s a yearly engagement letter that, though binding, includes an out for each party. If an unsatisfied company wants out of the agreement, the audit firm would either offer a remedy or let the client company go in a different direction.

Assuming the firms available have equal auditing ability, pick the firm that, through proposal process, you feel you can build the best relationship with over the long haul.

Insights Accounting is brought to you by Clarus Partners

Why companies that don’t have an audit system, should

Internal and external audit systems provide companies with a method for testing internal controls, a process that can help detect or prevent fraud while making sure the company stays compliant, stops misappropriation of assets and corrects bad reporting. So it’s surprising that so many companies don’t have one in place.

“For many companies, a lack of an audit system reflects a perceived lack of time,” says J.W. Wilson, CPA, director of audit and accounting services at Clarus Partners. “That smaller companies don’t have the time or resources to implement an audit system, however, is a misconception.”

Smart Business spoke with Wilson about audit systems, their purpose, types and basic implementation.

Why might some companies not have an established audit system?

Often the term ‘audit’ conjures up the idea of large companies with full-time staffers whose only job is to conduct audits. Companies don’t need employees devoting significant time to an internal audit system for an audit to be effective. The process can be scaled down to focused processes any company can effectively manage. In fact, many business owners are likely already performing many audit functions, just without calling it an internal audit process.

There’s also the perception that audits performed by outside agencies are expensive and the value might not match the price. Companies most likely don’t need a top-to-bottom audit. They can have testing done that is designed to look for a specific process, which is very affordable.

What are the steps to putting an audit system in place?

Companies should start by talking with the experts that are closest to them. For instance, someone in the company may have an internal audit background and may be capable of establishing internal audit procedures. If not, talk with an external accounting firm. Auditors from an outside agency can be brought in to gauge the effectiveness of a company’s controls, or can offer advice on how to set up an internal audit process.

Testing can be fairly basic — for example, select and follow a transaction through the accounting cycle to a general ledger, compare the findings to those of the previous month and budgeted numbers, and if the numbers don’t match, a formal investigation should be undertaken.

When determining personnel processes, the top priority is segregation of duties, especially around handling cash and assets. Payroll is a good example. Within this function, the person who processes payroll shouldn’t be the same person who adds employees to the payroll system. Similarly, the person who initiates disbursements and transfers shouldn’t be the same person doing bank reconciliations.

At the end of each month, it should be standard practice to review financial statements and compare them to the previous month and the budget or forecasting statement to see if they meet expectations. Monthly statements should reflect what’s been budgeted. If not, what was the reason? Look into any unexpected results that don’t have a justification.

Ultimately a company needs to have the right controls in place and then test those controls. Run a random internal audit to test that the segregation of duties is being maintained. That can be done though a company’s accounting system. Each system has controls and rights associated with logins, so it’s possible to check to see that the segregation of duties is being maintained.

How can a company determine the best approach to setting up an audit system?

It’s important to understand that every company is different, so one company’s control procedures aren’t necessarily going to fit another company’s processes. Just focus on a few key procedures — those that may expose the company to the most risk of fraud — and make sure those processes are monitored and tested regularly.

The term audit shouldn’t be frightening. Efficient internal controls are important, no matter the type or size of the company. Internal and external controls can be scaled to fit a company’s specific needs. And if setting up an audit process is far outside the wheelhouse of anyone in the company, consider working with an accounting firm to test specific controls that are important to the business.

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